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The Role of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi in the Sudanese National Movement 1908-1956 Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim International Islamic University, Malaysia This article depends entirely on the findings of a research project that I have undertaken for the last few years on neo-Mahdism in the Sudan, with special reference to the role of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi in the Sudanese National Movement. Several articles on this topic were published in books and referred journals in the Sudan and abroad. Others will eventually follow. They will all provide the backbone of a book that I hope to publish soon on this subject. Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi Manipulates the British 1908-1926 Mahdism was the principal weapon that the Sudanese people used in their struggle against Ottoman domination and European imperialism in the 19th century. But its militant ideology that refused to have anything to do with the "infidels" (i.e. all non-Mahdists) and insisted on a jihad—-a holy war—against them had undergone a significant change in the 20th century, particularly since 1914. Mahdism now accepted cooperation with the British imperialists and the defacto rulers of the Sudan from 1899 to 1956. This drastic departure from militancy to moderation was presumably masterminded by the new leader of the Mahdists, or rather the neoMahdists , Abd al-Rahman, the eldest surviving son of the Mahdi.1 Besides being unrevolutionary by nature, Abd al-Rahman seemed to have realized that the British were supreme and that his father's extreme tactics would not unseat them. He therefore felt that the interest of the Sudanese nation at large, and the Mahdist sect in particular, would best be Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 3, No. 1 (New Series) 1996, pp. 7-257 8 Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim served by cooperating with the British on the basis of the Sudan for the Sudanese. We now have sufficient evidence to assume that this constitutionalism did not really ring true, but was, in fact, dictated by political realities. For the Sayyid clearly realized that an armed rising could only lead to total destruction. In his biography of the Mahdi, the late Ubaid Abd al-Nur, a prominent Sudanese poet and educator, emphasizes this difference between the Mahdi and his son. Ubaid maintains that both men were nationalist leaders fighting for independence. But while the Mahdi fought Ottoman ruling aristocracy with weapons, his son fought the British imperialists "with patience and tolerance."2 Since his youth,3 Abd al-Rahman seemed to have been anxious to reorganize the Mahdists into a strong politico-religious sect and to use them to achieve his lifelong ambition of an independent Sudan under his leadership, if not his crown. But he was too pragmatic to expect this to be achieved quickly, especially in the hostile atmosphere that prevailed prior to 1914 against himself and the Mahdists. During that critical period, he kept a very low profile, aspiring only to achieve two modest objectives that were important pre-requisites for the attainment of his ambition. These were the consolidation of his position as the undisputed leader of the Mahdi's family and to discreetly counter Inspector-General Rudolf Slatin's hostile and repressive policy towards Mahdism. Abd al-Rahman achieved considerable success in this respect, but not enough to achieve his ultimate objective. The outbreak of the Great War led to a new chapter in the history of relations between the Mahdists and the government, persuading the latter to adopt an increasingly tolerant attitude towards the former and their leader.4 To counter the Ottoman Sultan's call for a jihad against Britain and her allies in 1914, Reginald Wingate, the governor-general, asked Abd al-Rahman to tour the Gezira and secure the loyalty of the Sudanese people there. The government, however, was aware that this change of policy involved an element of risk. Indeed, Stewart Symes, Wingate's private secretary who was subsequently appointed governor-general (19341940 ), had concurrently warned the Sayyid against exploiting this opportunity to organize the Mahdists. Symes bluntly told Abd al-Rahman that "he would be personally responsible if the government was kept in ignorance of any revivalist activities among...


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